ANNAPOLIS – Attorneys said that a decision published Friday by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals will give victims of dog attacks a powerful tool for suing the animals’ owners.
The ruling stemmed from a vicious August 1994 attack on Alex Moura, then 4, whose scalp was ripped open when he was mauled in Wheaton by Diesel, a Rottweiler owned by Warren Randall. Alex was severely scarred and needed skin grafts to restore his scalp.
But a Montgomery County Circuit judge threw out the Moura family’s $6 million lawsuit against Randall, noting that Diesel had never attacked anyone and had completed obedience training.
Circuit Judge James Chapin said that even though Diesel was not on a leash at the time, Randall “had the right to believe, based on experience, that the dog was under control.”
But the appeals court disagreed in a Nov. 12 decision that was only officially published Friday. It sent the case back to Chapin with instructions to examine whether Randall erred by walking Diesel without a leash.
“This decision basically throws out the age-old rule that every dog gets one free bite in counties with a leash law,” said Ronald A. Karp, an attorney for the Mouras.
Attorneys for both sides agreed that the decision means pets in Montgomery County will no longer be considered “under control” even if, like Diesel, they have had obedience training and never attacked anyone.
They disagreed on the ruling’s ultimate impact.
Randall’s attorney, Barbara R. Graham, said it could mean “you’re liable for everything an animal does regardless of whether you knew it could happen…. A leash could break, and under this decision you’d be liable.”
But Moura attorney Jack A. Gold said a jury would likely only make such a finding “if you knew the leash was frayed.”
In her opinion for a three-judge panel of the appeals court, Judge Ellen M. Hollander wrote that Randall should have taken greater care because Diesel ran away once before, to chase a cat.
“The owner’s knowledge of the propensities of the animal is relevant in determining” how careful Randall should have been, she wrote.
The judges told the lower court to consider other examples of Diesel’s aggressiveness that were kept out of the record. A dog trainer’s observation that Diesel “was straining at the leash” during an examination was not used at trial because it was unaccompanied by a sworn statement.
“The dog was jumping up and down in an effort to get to me,” said the trainer, Mark Lipsitt. “He was barking. He was growling. He was snarling. He was baring his teeth, and he was snapping.”
Randall’s attorney said the trainers provoked that behavior.
Hollander said the absence of sworn statements might make the testimony inadmissable, but the circuit court should resolve this question “in the light most favorable to” Moura.